Social Distance Learning

Melissa Girmscheid Uncategorized

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“Call me when your lunch starts please!!”


This is not really the type of text that a parent wants to get from their college student child, especially when said child is over 800 miles away. Long story short, her university is one of many that has decided to move schooling online to encourage social distancing and slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus.


This has me wondering, how do we make this online learning effective?


Many Arizona districts offer online courses to allow for credit recovery, extended learning, and the inclusion of homebound students. For high school students, this can mean remaining on track for graduation despite previous setbacks and the opportunity to take classes that may not otherwise fit into their schedules.


Teenagers are, by nature, social creatures. Learning happens in the conversations and interactions in my classroom, whether these are planned or not. While interactive platforms such as Zoom can allow conversations to happen in real time using technology, the effect is not the same.


I asked my students how they felt about the possibility of emergency online schooling, and their responses were very telling:


“I don’t want to miss school.”

“Disgusting. I don’t want to do that.”

“I would just play Xbox while we were in class.”

“If my assignments were online, I would just do them all in one day.”

“I don’t think I would show up if we had to log in at a certain time.”

“I could sleep in and I wouldn’t have to socialize or do what my teachers tell me.”

“I’d love it. I think I would be really focused at home.”


My hope is that teachers would be considerate of students’ emotional and physical needs, as well as the adjustment to the home learning environment. Expecting students to remain on task and engaged while at home is unrealistic, especially considering the reason for which we would be on hiatus.


I have had the opportunity to teach an online course this semester and have finally figured out a rhythm after eight sessions. We engage in small group discussions and larger interactions via Zoom, and assign homework using Canvas. My co-instructor and I have had to adjust our expectations, working around the needs of our participants. These participants are all physics teachers, joining us from across the country.


I am doubtful that my teenage students can learn in the same manner as these teachers. For one, I need to find ways to ensure that my students are doing science, not just reading about it. When I asked my students about taking a class like mine online, their responses were, “How?” and “I wouldn’t want to do that.”


My students are fortunate that, to them, an online physics class sounds farfetched. For many Arizona students, online education is the only way to take a physics, chemistry or calculus class. The teachers and administrators who have figured out this process will be an invaluable resource as we look to contingency plans. For them, providing access to these classes for all students can mean offering online solutions that partner students with teachers certified in those content areas.


Connecting students with teachers outside their geographical area is a positive for online education. The question remains, however, as to whether we can transition from in-person schooling to online and back again. If my online course full of teachers is running smoothly after eight sessions, how much time would it take me to navigate an online course full of teens?


As a parent, I am happy to see states, districts and schools creating plans that follow the recommendations of the CDC. As an educator, I am also looking for the education in these plans. Students need stability during this uncertain time, and school is one place where they can find this stability. Even if they are at home, learning may allow students to maintain some semblance of normalcy. Learning can take many forms and be through many formats.


In the meantime, how can schools and teachers allow for student learning while at home? Online education may not be perfect, but it is the reality for many students across the country. During this time of uncertainty, we may be able to learn from our colleagues who have found ways to reach students via technological means.


How do you plan to continue learning if you’re asked to remain at home?


Melissa is a passionate advocate for physics education. She is currently in her twelfth year of teaching high school students about the world around them through the study of physics and carries this passion to her secondary job developing and leading Computational Modeling in Physics First with Bootstrap workshops. Melissa is a Master Teacher Policy Fellow with the American Institute of Physics and American Association of Physics Teachers, and in 2019 worked with a team of Arizona physics superstars to successfully lobby for ongoing education funding for STEM and CTE teachers. Her goal is to ensure every student in Arizona has access to a high quality physics education. She continues to advocate for students as an Ambassador with the American Physical Society’s STEP UP program and a coach in the Arizona Educational Foundation’s teachSTEM program. Melissa achieved National Board certification is 2017 and now serves candidates as a Candidate Support Provider. She believes in the power of Modeling Instruction, student-centered learning, and the Five Core Propositions.

Comments 3

  1. Beth Maloney

    This is a great piece, Melissa. You bring up a lot of important points as we transition into this strange new world. I am glad you have some online teaching experience – I may have some questions for you in the coming weeks!

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  2. James King

    It was interesting to read this after we just finished an entire quarter in distance learning.

    I saw the importance of our buildings so much.

    I witnessed so many students step up and get engaged. They continued to learn and participate.

    I also witnessed students disappear into the ether. I have taught the same grade level since I started teaching, and this year, the students who were engaged on line still fell short of the bar I am used to seeing ALL of my students making it to.

    The summer break is a time to recharge, but it is also a time to adapt and make distance learning more effective. We don’t know what will happen… but I do know I want to excel in this new platform to help my students as effectively as possible.

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